The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum (Random House: $19.95; 576 pp.)

Within the spy fiction category is a sub-genre called Paranoids--tales of manipulations, conspiracies and plots for world domination or destruction concocted by dark and grandly evil organizations (within and without the United States). For Paranoids to do their job properly on readers, they must be believable. Since Robert Ludlum's weighty novels are among the most popular in the sub-genre, one must assume that either his knowledge of world history, current events and the inner workings of political power ploys must be awesome or he is not a man with whom you'd wish to play poker.

It is perplexing therefore to discover that he has created a novel so overpopulated, overplotted and overwritten that it literally defies a reader to complete it. In 1980, Ludlum wrote "The Bourne Identity," which was, one gathers, a simple tale of an ordinary Joe who is transformed into a schizophrenic madman-killer by a government agency for the sake of world peace. The novel was fleshed out by his attempts to stay alive and to shuck off the super-assassin psyche in favor of the Clark Kent within him. "The Bourne Supremacy," the author's first sequel, is precisely that same story, treated to new incidents. But it takes nearly 600 pages. And these are dense with descriptions of locales in Hong Kong and Kowloon, arcane spy jargon and a cast roughly the size of the population of mainland China.

To make matters all the more abstruse, most of the characters have multiple names. The protagonist, for example, is referred to by his real name, David Webb, by his psycho name, Jason Bourne, by three spy names, Delta, Cain and The Eagle, and by the descriptive appellations The Chameleon and "the man from Medusa," the latter being a reference to a spy apparatus. Speaking of which, in addition to Medusa, we must also contend with Dragonfly, not to mention the ever-popular CIA, MI6, the State Department and the National Security Council.

Finally, there is the plot, which grows more confusing by the paragraph, with the hero changing his personality more often than James Bond used to change his girlfriends. Ah, one yearns for the good old days and the relatively uncluttered adventures of James Bond. Granted, a thriller should be tricky enough to engage the mind, but not to cloud it forever.

It is one thing to spend weeks and months unraveling the mysteries of Melville or rummaging about in history according to Tolstoy. But a spy yarn? At 576 pages? Couldn't Random House find an editor with a slight tendency toward schizophrenia who, with the proper manipulation, would develop a suicidal alter ego to do battle with a powerful, best-selling author for the sake of readers the world over? It's a nasty job, but somebody's got to do it.

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